AbstractKey members of the nation's policy making community including a legislator, independent scholars, and members of influential national education organizations reflected on their elementary and secondary school years, and how those experiences affected their opinions on public education, including the education of the gifted. The objective of the study was to identify the role of childhood memories of school on the development of political viewpoints. The data were derived by way of interview, biographical materials, and published policy statements.
ObjectiveTo some degree, everyone can consider him or herself to be an expert on education. For each individual, 13 or more years of pre-collegiate education provides a storehouse of memories and experiences on which to build opinions and ideas for reform. Not everyone's ideas are considered seriously by the nation's legislators, however. And only a small handful of policy makers are especially influential. It is the purpose of this study to explore the background and schooling experiences of key policy-makers and how those experiences may be reflected in the policies they promote for public education, including the education of the gifted.
MethodSeven key policy makers were interviewed in person or by telephone. Each was asked to respond to the following questions:
ResultsEach sub-section below includes a brief biographical description followed by a synopsis of the interviewees' responses to the study questions.
Robert Slavin-Co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University. Slavin conducts research on programs and practices designed to help children succeed in school, and designs curriculum modifications that contribute to children's achievement. His efforts are mainly channeled into the "Success for All" and "Roots and Wings" programs, which are elementary school reform designs.
Childhood learning environment. Slavin grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC in a home with highly educated parents. The public schools he attended were tracked by ability starting at the junior high school level.
Exceptionality. Attending school with what appeared to be a high achieving peer group, Slavin did not consider himself exceptional.
Positive aspects of schooling. "Nerdy" peers were clearly the highlight of Slavin's schooling memories.
My classmates were oftentimes much more challenging and stimulating than the teachers. I had friends who would do competitive things with slide rules. Or we'd be passing notes in the back of the class, playing chess without a chess board.
Negative aspects of schooling. He does not, however, promote the idea of grouping nerds for instruction as a policy to be replicated in today's schools. Slavin feels that the stratification of students contributed to the poor educational experience provided at the school.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. Slavin served as an advisor for some key legislation developed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The goal of the Obey-Porter legislation is to supply funds to government agencies who wish to implement school reform models with proven records of success.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Slavin recognizes that children have different learning needs, and that where curriculum is sequential in nature, acceleration can serve as a medium for individualization. He also strongly believes that social stratification derived from rigid tracking is not appropriate in America's schools.
Gerald Bracey-research psychologist and writer. Author of Setting the Record Straight, Bracey looks at a variety of data to analyze what he thinks the data are really saying. He reports his work in a monthly research column in Phi Delta Kappan, and in his annual Bracey Report on the condition of public education, which has appeared in Phi Delta Kappan since 1991. Currently, he is working with the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) final year data set, and finding he does not agree with what the official reports are saying.
Childhood learning environment. Bracey spent his childhood in Williamsburg, Virginia, which, until he began high school, was small enough to contain grades K-12 in a single building. The system had an unspoken ability group system, with different curricula for each track:
Exceptionality. Although he was considered a highly able student throughout his school career. Bracey never exerted much effort at his studies, at least until 10th grade:
Positive aspects of schooling. High school foreign language instruction became invaluable to Bracey when he lived in various countries during adulthood. Also, over the course of his thirteen years of schooling, Bracey had two teachers for multiple years. One was an elementary school teacher and another was his high school science teacher. Bracey believes this good idea might be implemented more often, as long as students have the ability to opt out if there is not sufficient compatibility between student and teacher.
Negative aspects of schooling. Because he entered school with a rich background in basic skills, he didn't find his early years to be at all challenging.
Bracey would have enjoyed a more enriched curriculum including deep immersion in music and art.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. Bracey feels compelled to provide balance in what he sees is a biased portrait of American schools based on large-scale data sets and standardized tests. His critiques of the TIMMS study results reported in the media are models of his modus operandi.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Although Bracey feels comfortable promoting special curriculum based on the individual needs of gifted students, his concerns lie more in the development of good citizens:
I think I am less concerned about the development of talent than I am about the development of citizens. Since the Nation at Risk report, most of the talk about educational reform has turned on this dreary notion of getting a job, or helping yourself economically, or contributing to the economic health of the US. That has meant a real drying up of concern for developing good citizens in a democracy. Although there are complaints about low skills of American workers, they're still the most productive in the world. When they get off the job, however, they go home and watch mindless TV and do things that don't really contribute to the well-being of their family or community.
Jeff Bingaman-Third term U.S. Senator from New Mexico (in 2001). In the next Congress, Senator Bingaman will be ranking member of Energy and National Resources and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. Although he is not as highly ranked in the Labor and Human Resources Committee, his greatest legislative interest, education, is discussed in that arena. Bingaman is well regarded by his Senate colleagues for his legal analysis, his bipartisan approach to solving problems, and thorough understanding of policy.
Childhood teaming environment. Senator Bingaman was raised by educators in the small town of Silver City, New Mexico, home of Western New Mexico State University. His father was a professor at the university and his mother was an elementary teacher in the local public schools. Up through 8th grade, Bingaman attended a program at the university designed as a laboratory for student teachers.
After he graduated from the laboratory school, Bingaman attended the local public high school. Hispanic students from the community attended the same high school, yet dropped out in great numbers, a fact that left a deep impression on him.
Exceptionality. The high school that Senator Bingaman attended was tracked via self-selection, with guidance from parents and counselors. In that environment, he was among the top students, and the only one from his class who left New Mexico for an Ivy League education.
Positive aspects of schooling. Growing up in a small community and attending small schools were clearly the most attractive aspect of the Senator's memories of childhood.
Negative aspects of schooling. Senator Bingaman remembered his schooling experiences as generally very positive. The drawbacks that came from attending a small school were the limited choice of electives, particularly in foreign languages, and the content preparation of his teachers. With a small staff, the faculty had to take on several roles. His history teacher was a coach, and although friendly and fun, was short on information and background.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. Senator Bingaman has established a line of policy and legislation that focuses on rigorous standards for students and teachers. Included among the bills, amendments, and resolutions he has spearheaded are those related to supporting voluntary national testing, access to Advanced Placement courses on the part of low SES students, requiring accountability on the part of teacher preparation programs, high quality teacher training in educational technology, and challenging programs designed to stem the nation's drop-out problem, particularly among Hispanic students.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Although gifted children should be recognized and their needs met Senator Bingaman is hesitant to promote segregated education for them.
Art Wise -President of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Author of Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity (1968). He helped create the U.S. Department of Education and the original Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Childhood Learning Environment. Wise grew up in a working class Boston neighborhood, in a home where his parents valued education highly. He described his teachers in elementary school as mediocre; however, the teachers he encountered at the selective Boston Latin School ranged from good to great. Discrepancies in the quality of teaching became a life-long concern for Wise:
Exceptionality. Although Boston Latin was a competitive environment, Wise remained a conscientious student.
Positive aspects of schooling. The acquisition of good study and learning habits were key positive features for Wise. He enjoyed the company of high achieving classmates and well-qualified teachers.
Negative aspects of schooling. Watching classmates struggle to stay in Boston Latin was highly motivating, yet Wise was left wondering whether the drop-outs might not have been offered more opportunities to succeed in that environment. In terms of curriculum, Wise would have enjoyed a greater focus on mathematics, science, and history, even at the expense of his exposure to multiple foreign languages.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. Wise's legal theory, developed during a hyper-accelerated graduate education at the University of Chicago, has had a seminal effect on the distribution of resources across school districts nationwide.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Wise has not focused his attention on how best to serve gifted children, although he is highly supportive of specialized high school programs. In general he believes that kids should be pushed to go as fast and as deep as they can.
George "Pinky" Nelson-Director of Project 2061 for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Begun in 1985, Project 2061 is the Association's long term project to reform science education. The project's inclusionary definition of science includes the biological and physical sciences, mathematics, social science, and engineering technology. The long term goal is for all high school graduates to be science literate. Nelson's career combines his professional interests in astronomy and education. As a NASA astronaut from 1978 to 1989, Nelson logged more than 400 hours of space time during three Space Shuttle missions.
Childhood learning environment. Nelson grew up in small town Minnesota in a home where both parents were educators. He recalls that teachers were highly regarded in the community and were drawn from among the smartest women in the area.
Exceptionality. Good fortune, according to Nelson, blessed him with an extraordinary peer group from elementary school all the way through high school that kept him challenged and excited about school. He was an all-around good student who participated actively in extra-curricular activities, especially in music and sports. He and a small group of his friends were especially enamored of mathematics.
Positive aspects of schooling. Throughout the interview, Nelson reiterated his admiration for intellectual caliber of his teachers and peer group. He also addressed the psychological components that made school wonderful for him.
During his senior year, his mother died and his father moved to Long Island to work. He chose to remain and finish his schooling with his friends and teachers. He took an apartment and lived alone. Everyone in the community watched out for him and ensured that beyond the financial support he received from his father, his basic life needs were being met.
Negative aspects of schooling. Some of the teachers were uninspiring and the curriculum mediocre.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. Nelson invested a lot of effort and creativity into developing science standards for the public schools in Washington State. Involvement in the world of science education provided him with the contacts he needed to end up in his current role directing a program of curriculum standards available to the Nation's schools.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Nelson identifies two different groups of youngsters with special talent in science.
Robert Chase-President of the National Education Association. Prior to being President, he was Vice-President for seven years. For 25 years, he was a junior high school social studies teacher.
Childhood learning environment. Chase grew up as a member of a large family in a small town on Cape Cod. His parents did not emphasize schooling as a key responsibility for their children.
Exceptionality. Mr. Chase claims he was not a particularly good student, exemplified by the fact that he made honor roll only once in his career at school. Fortunately, some teachers saw something in him, kept pushing him and decided to help him get through school and have some successes. Although he was not an exceptional student, he did participate in the college preparatory track. Apparently, students could choose which track to join, and his friends were in the high track. Although he enrolled in advanced classes, he said it had no impact on the quality of his academic performance.
Positive aspects of schooling. Through sports and extra-curricular activities, Chase developed a social network and support system that he found enjoyable and rewarding. He was provided in school the structure that he lacked at home for studying, and other aspects of self-discipline.
Negative aspects of schooling. Although Chase was not restricted from participating in the college preparatory track in spite of a mediocre school record, he believes that social stratification is a serious negative outcome of tracking policies.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. There have been radical shifts in the teachers' union agenda in recent years, and Chase has been focusing on teacher quality. Rather than having these notions imposed from without, he views the professional union as the ideal place to generate the criteria that define the high quality teacher.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Chase expressed a certain ambivalence about how to address the needs of gifted children. On the one hand, he recognizes individual differences in learning speed and ability, yet he holds profound concerns about sorting mechanisms like tracking or ability grouping.
Diane Ravitch-a professor at New York University, holds the Brown Chair in Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, and is member of the National Assessment Governing Board, to which she was appointed by Secretary Riley in 1997. She is also a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and at the Progressive Policy Institute. From 1991-1993 she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander, where she headed up the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Childhood learning environment. Ravitch grew up as the third of eight children in Texas. Her parents, owners of a small business, were not highly educated or interested in intellectual matters. They did, however, recognize the academic talents of their daughter, and even pursued the possibility of a private school education for this one child. The family's application was rejected because they were Jewish, and Ravitch attended the local public schools.
Exceptionality. The graduating class of Ravitch's high school included 450 students. She and three other girls were valedictorians. Only five students left Texas to attend Eastern colleges- Ravitch enrolled at Wellesley. Compared to her siblings, she was unusually interested in things intellectual and academic. The same held true at school.
Positive aspects of schooling. Nothing came to mind when asked if there were anything she would want to replicate from her schooling in today's educational environment.
Negative aspects of schooling. Ravitch condemns the anti-intellectual and unchallenging curriculum she received in school.
When I went to Wellesley, I discovered that I didn't know anything. One of the reasons that I feel detached from the intellectual elite, or could never think of myself as an intellectual, is that I had a pretty awful pre-collegiate education. I grew up in a car culture. Everyone was absorbed with Elvis and James Dean, and so was I. I believe that schools should be expanding our vision of what every kid's potential can be by experiencing the "best that has been thought and said in the world". It's tragic that we turn kids over to the popular culture; it's a mighty thin and ultimately unsatisfying diet. It's even worse today than it was when I was a teen.
Every child should learn to love language, poetry, and literature; every child should learn to use the language well. Our society depends on a high level of common knowledge, common understanding, a fund of shared values. I especially think that we should raise standards for entry into the teaching profession. It should be hard to become a teacher; it should be considered a privilege, open only to those who have the gift to teach well. It is a scandal that so many people now teaching have never studied the subject they are teaching; how can you teach what you have not studied yourself. It should be a basic goal of our society to assure that everyone who teaches is well qualified, skilled, and enthusiastic. And well paid too.
Legislation or policy that elicits the most pride. A consistent theme in Ravitch's Writing's is on the establishment of high standards for school children, reversing a trend established during this century to water down curriculum to make it more accessible. She believes that the price we have paid is shutting out the kind of critical thinking and aesthetic enjoyment that makes life richer and more fulfilling. Her work in establishing a set of voluntary national standards is a policy that she spearheaded and is most proud of.
What our commitment to gifted children should be. Ravitch's main focus of attention has been on more rigorous standards for all children and for their teachers. If the curriculum were more challenging, indeed the needs of some gifted children might be met. She does believe that those children who exhibit academic talent should have the opportunity to operate at the outer limits of their abilities.
Themes and ConclusionsAlthough the gifted education community often feels besieged by criticisms of special provisions for gifted learners, this visit into the world of America's top general education policy-makers offers some hope. Each of the interviewees recognized individual differences in learning speed and depth of comprehension, and each acknowledged a need for some kind of mechanism for addressing those differences. Acceleration and voluntary ability grouping seemed acceptable to all.
Voluntary grouping is an idea that has not been favorably viewed upon by our community because we assume that every parent would then enroll his or her child in special sections or classes for advanced learners, and no one would be well-accommodated. If we look at the more evolved talent development model of sports, however, we can see that self-selection plays a significant role in trying out for teams. Not every child or every family wants to put in the time and effort needed to stay on top of a rigorous practice regime.
Another theme emerged from the interviews that ties into the voluntary grouping approach-and that is the role of teachers as talent scouts. Without a cadre of teacher talent scouts, students with exceptional ability who have not been made aware of their gifts may not take the necessary steps to enroll in advanced programs. Talent scouts serve the purpose of neutralizing selection bias in gifted programs. Teachers can also serve as mentors for children not used to the challenge and commitment necessary to meet more rigorous programs of study or performance.
In her volume entitled Before the Gates of Excellence: Determinants of Creative Genius (Oxford University Press, 1990), Ochse posits that overcoming adversity is the major drive leading to eminence. The participants in this interview study had both internal and external motivations for pursuing highly visible paths in the world of education. All were inspired to do well by supportive teachers and confidence in their intellectual, communication, or social skills. Several were also driven by the desire to prove someone wrong or to master some inhibition. For example, at key points early in their careers, Gerald Bracey was stifled by bureaucracy and Diane Ravitch by the education establishment. Art Wise was told by his sixth grade principal that he wouldn't "make it" in the high school he wanted to attend, and Pinky Nelson had to live on his own during his final year of school. Although Robert Slavin did not experience any special adversity in the course of his schooling or career, he was disturbed by how his less academically successful brothers had suffered from their low track schooling, right there in the same building. Jeff Bingaman and Bob Chase are not extroverts, but have won highly visible offices that require enormous amounts of social interaction. They are prepared to overcome shyness or introversion in order to support their political and policy aims.
All seven interviewees promoted the idea of pushing students to the limits of their capabilities, no matter how divergent those capabilities were. All the interviewees see the role of teachers ensure that teachers have strong content knowledge to support those efforts. They have all benefited from at least one teacher who saw something unique or special in them. Most importantly, all of them were prepared to push themselves to the limit.
The interviewees of this small study are powerful influences on the national scene. Fortunately, their efforts are positive and benefit all of us. There are many other legislators, lobbyists, and policymakers who are far less knowledgeable or thoughtful in what they promote. Academics must become more familiar with and active in the policy world. We need to be far more active in pushing for what we want and for articulating that to our legislators and to our colleagues. We also need to take some time to recognize and thank those who speak out intelligently on our behalf and on behalf of America's children.
Permission to reprint this article was granted by Great Potential Press.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.